October Reflections

The people are dressed in their finest.  The best food and drink available are spread on white tablecloths while rats scurry underfoot.  The feasters invite Lucy to join them.  “It’s the last supper,” they say, hoisting a glass, knowing that they will soon die of the plague.  This is one of the most powerful scenes in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre.  It’s October and we’re in the midst of a plague.  The wealthy retain their fortunes while the poor die in the streets.  Do I really need to explain why someone so focused on religion and social justice finds horror films as able conversation partners?  My two books that relate to the topics don’t come outright and say it, but there are spiritual lessons to be learned here.

Genre is a convenient, perhaps even necessary, means of making sense of the vast creative output of humankind.  We write fiction, poems, and songs.  We film movies.  We produce these forms of entertainment at a stunning rate, especially when we consider the large number of pieces made that never find official publication.  Genre helps us sort through—this is like that, etc.  Still, some of my favorite pieces of literature, and movies, don’t really fit into neat genre divisions.  Take Herzog’s Nosferatu.  There are definitely horror elements here, but it is also an art film.  Some scenes, like that described above, are suffused with religious meaning.  When circumstances align correctly we can see it and say, “ah, now I understand.”  That was what came to me recently.  I haven’t seen the movie for years, but circumstances with Covid-19 brought it to mind.

October is a month of poetry and transitions.  We turned the furnace on only to find ourselves in the midst of a string of days reaching near 70.  The cerulean sky which looks so different this time of year suddenly disappeared with nearly a week of heavy cloud cover.  There’s beauty in the daytime and monsters in the night.  Outside lurks a plague.  Lacking the willpower to overcome it, people are growing weary of the restrictions.  We’re not used to being locked up.  The thing about the last supper is that life goes on even after it’s over.  Changed, yes, but October is all about change.  We’re anxious, wondering if it was indeed a vampire that bit us.  Meanwhile the leaves continue their journey from green to yellow, orange, and red, their litter becoming the food for next year’s growth.  Yes, there are spiritual lessons here.

Shortchanging Halloween

In a local mall over the weekend where Christmas decorations were being uncrated, I felt cheated.  Now I’m not naive enough to suppose retailers can get by without the black season around Christmas, but as a writer of books Halloween themed I felt as if my thunder were stolen.  The normal person, I suspect, thinks of scary things only about this time of year.  Monsters and horror films are on people’s minds in fall, even though a good horror flick will make a few bucks even in spring or summer.  Halloween has a very small window of appeal, however, followed on closely, as it is, by Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Why can’t we give Halloween its due?

My wife pointed out that Halloween is a big retail event.  Indeed it is.  I started noticing Halloween paraphernalia on the shelves fairly early in August.  I know that even without capitalistic prompting I start to sense the season then.  It’s in the air.  Certain early August mornings you can smell a faint whiff of autumn on a breeze slightly cooler than expected.  The first leaves start to change and fall before September.  It will be another couple of months before the season makes itself felt in full force, but the early hints are there.  A believer in delayed gratification, I hold back.  I  don’t buy, but I absorb.  The melancholy grows through September until as the calendar tells me it is now officially October I can begin to exhale.  This is the time when those of us who are horror misfits can seem somewhat normal.  I walk into a store and “Ho, ho, ho!”  The joke’s on me.

Autumn already slips by too quickly.  Every year before I know it the ephemeral beauty of changing leaves is gone and the subtle chill in the air turns frigid.  Damp leaves are raked up to make room for snow.  The swiftness of this season is perhaps one reason so many people value it.  Summer can stretch long with its uncomfortably warm days and winter can linger for nearly half the year with its opposite feel.  Halloween is a holiday that intentionally falls in the midst of transition.  That transition has been commercialized, however, into buying seasons.  Only halfway through October the price of Halloween goods drops to sale rates.  Corporate offices are chomping for Christmas cash.  What I really need is a walk through the fallen leaves and a few untrammeled moments to consider where we are rather than what we might earn.

Dayglow

Yellow and orange leaves on a damp pavement.  A sky claustrophobically occluded with gray clouds.  A decided chill in the air.  All you have to do is add a few pumpkins and the feeling of October is complete.  I don’t know why this particular image of the change of seasons grips me the way it does.  As a homeowner I don’t want to turn the heat on too soon because the gas bills will jet up and will stay that way for seven or eight months.  I get depressed when skys are cloudy for days at a time.  Around here the leaves have only just begun to change.  In other words, there’s a decided difference between the way I imagine October and the way that it feels on the ground.  In my imagination there are Ray Bradbury titles, The October Country, The Autumn People, but here in the physical world I shiver and add another layer.

Over the past several weeks I’ve been struggling to figure out why horror appeals to me.  It seems to be the Poe-esque mood rather than any startles or gore.  The sense of mystery that hangs in the air when you simply don’t know what to expect.  Will it be a warm, summer-like day or will it be rainy and raw, a day when you wouldn’t venture outside without the necessity to do so?  October is like that.  It is changeable.  Beginning in late September it is dark longer than it is light and for much of the rest of the year I will go to bed when it’s dark outside.  It’s always still dark when I awake.  Is it any wonder that October has its hooks in me?

Short stories, of which I’ve had about twenty published, seem to be the best way to capture this mood.  You see, it isn’t a sustained feeling.  It’s piecemeal like that extra quilt you throw on your bed at night.  The urge to hibernate creeps in, but capitalism doesn’t allow for that.  October is an artist, and I’m just the guy wandering the galley, pausing before each painting.  This feeling only comes after summer, and it is fleeting.  In November the leaves will be down and the cold will settle in quite earnestly.  The candles we lit for Halloween will be our guide-lights to those we hold out to Christmas when the dayglow will begin to return at an hour that reminds us change is the only thing that’s permanent.  And in this there’s a profound hope.

Trailing Art

One of the many trails that wend their way through Ithaca is the Art Trail.  (The town finds waypoints on the wine and beer trails of the southern tier as well, but we were looking for visual art.)  In early October several artists open their studios—these are personal places—to the tourists passing through.  Those of us on the trail are seeking inspiration in human expression.  I’ve neglected my own art for many years.  While other guys my age are retiring and expressing their boredom, I struggle to find enough time to write, dreaming of the day when I can again take up my pencils and brushes.  Being in so many studios over the weekend jump-started something in me.  Humans are at their most god-like when they create.

Seeing artists in context is revealing.  They don’t worry too much about convention.  I found myself hanging toward the back of our little group.  There was so much of others’ souls on display here.  While some were young, a fair number were older than me.  Perhaps retired from a novocaine job that dulled many days until enough years had passed and the need to let the art out escaped.  If felt like visiting a small farm where the true independent, liberal spirit of this country once resided.  These were farmers with paint brushes rather than shotguns and Trump bumperstickers.  Free thinkers, not Fox thinkers.  Under a sky October blue after two days of rain and gray, this was a mosaic of autumn.  Art is a muse.  I think of my neglected brushes and dried out paints, tucked away in the attic.

Modern art sometimes feels like someone slapped a frame around something random, but in talking with the creator something different emerges.  Something that doesn’t feel like plastic.  Something that defies words.  Like poems sometimes break conventional lines, art refuses to be confined.  Some of these studios used to be living rooms.  Houses converted and dedicated to creativity.  Why is this so difficult to accomplish in my own life?  How has the time come to be consumed with work, even when the commute has been effaced?  I suppose I’ve been using words to express myself—this blog is certainly an example of that.  It is, however, a mere fraction of visual ideas awaiting release.  I don’t know if I could ever open my studio to strangers.  Art trails are labyrinths, and once you’ve entered that maze, it will take some time to reemerge.  And when I do I know I will have been transformed.

Fall Festivals

Now that it’s October, it’s officially okay to be scared.  Determined to fight my fright of hubris, I make brave to mention that I have two appearances scheduled for the first ever Easton Book Festival, coming up from the 25th to the 27th.  The Festival has turned into quite an event, with some 200 writers taking part.  I got involved by being in the right place at the right time, for a change.  Authors are being brought in from as far as New York City, Vermont, and Massachusetts.  I know from experience that even Manhattan is a trek.  I contacted the organizers back in the summer since I have an autumn book that came out in late December last year.  For the festival I’ll be involved in a panel discussion “Poets as Prophets—Merging Art and Religion” on Saturday, and a presentation on Holy Horror on Sunday.

Like many people who write, I’m shy and not naturally good at promoting myself.  The other day while out for a walk my wife and I were run by by a group of shirtless high school guys, presumably on the track team.  It felt like the gallimimus scene from Jurassic Park—we’re smaller folks, and these confident, athletic sorts were not.  It felt like an object lesson to me.  Some of us are born with genetic dispositions to grow large and to feel confident.  Others not so much.  When we watched the caber toss at Celtic Fest last weekend, the contestants were all well over six feet tall, which I suppose makes sense if a caber is in the cards for you.  As they showboated for the crowd, I knew a small display with my book was just up the hill in the Moravian Book Shop.  Like me, in the shadows of the shelf above.

Perhaps my only regret about the Easton Book Festival is that I don’t have a fictional novel to present.  Well, I do, but it isn’t published.  Lately I’ve been exploring that wall of separation between fiction and non.  In the kinds of books I read in the fall, the wall is more of a hurricane fence.  And it’s only about waist high at that.  Holy Horror isn’t an academic book, it just plays one on the market.  If it were a standard academic title I wouldn’t have put it forward for the Easton Book Festival; people come to such events to be entertained as well as to learn.  This one will encompass pretty much all of downtown Easton for the weekend.  And that weekend is just before Halloween, when the wall between worlds is especially thin.

 

Organic Experience

Holy Horror, it looks like, has been delayed until January.  That doesn’t mean that I have to wait to find some relief in the escape to film.  Over the weekend my wife surprised me by being willing to watch The Exorcist with me.  As we settled in to see it, a few things occurred to me—watching horror with someone else isn’t nearly as frightening as watching it alone.  I know this from experience, and it seems that it has something to do with the willing suspension of disbelief.  It’s harder to do when someone is with you.  Left to one’s own devices, it’s possible to believe what you’re watching, even if intellectually you know that it is merely a movie.  That tells us something about the way brains are wired.

I object to the word “wired,” really.  As organic beings, we are not computers.  What invented consciousness would watch a scary movie for pleasure?  What is the rationale for it?  It was a gray and rainy Saturday evening in late October.  In human experience that may be all that it takes.  Seeing orange and black in the stores sets a mood that computers, I strongly suspect, simply can’t feel.  They lack the human experience of childhood trick-or-treating, or throwing on another layer as the days grow chillier, or watching the leaves turn and slowly drift down from weary trees.  No, these aren’t wired experiences—they’re very organic ones, and often those that mean something even to adults as the seasons wend their way through the calendar.

The author waiting for proofs is rather like an expectant parent.  Well, that analogy’s not quite right either, but you get the point.  I know the book is coming.  It was accepted and submitted long ago.  The publication process, however, is more complex than most people might assume.  In fact, in the publishing industry it is often the main role of the editorial assistant to assure that manuscripts make it through all of the necessary hoops to move from finished manuscript to printed book.  Johannes Gutenberg likely had a simpler process worked out, although, in the early days of book-buying you could purchase the pages and have them bound by your choice of bindery.  Now cover and content are glued or stitched together in what one hopes is a seamless way.  Still, that stitching can’t help but to recall Frankenstein’s monster.  It is, however, another gray, rainy day in October.  It’s just a shame my computer can’t share the experience with me.

October’s Monsters

Blood and vampires go together like October and, well, vampires.  Although I don’t understand manga, I do know it’s extremely popular, and a friend has been lending me the volumes of Hellsing by Kouta Hirano.  In the past couple of weeks I’ve read numbers 4 and 5.  Hellsing sets up a world where the Catholic church destroys vampires, as does the English, Protestant organization Hellsing Organization.  The latter, however, has as its secret weapon the vampire Alucard who, in nearly every number, gets dismembered in some bloody way before pulling himself back together to overcome the enemy.  In the latest issues I’ve read the Catholics and Protestants have to cooperate against the threat of neo-Nazis (and this was before Trump was elected), who also employ werewolves.  (It’s October, remember.)

Having been pondering the vampires of Maine, I decided to read the next in my own generation’s vampire hero, Barnabas Collins.  I’ve been reading the Dark Shadows series by Marilyn Ross to try to find a lost piece of my childhood.  There was a scene in one of these poorly written Gothic novels that made a strong impression on me that I finally re-encountered in Barnabas, Quentin and the Nightmare Assassin.  Interestingly, in this installment Barnabas, the gentleman vampire, is cured of his curse while traveling back in time with Carolyn Stoddard.  The story doesn’t explain how some of the characters from the twentieth century appear a hundred years earlier, but it does bring an early encounter of the vampire against the werewolf—an idea monster fans know from its many iterations such as Hellsing or, famously, Underworld.

You might think vampires and werewolves would get along.  In both the Dark Shadows and Hellsing universes the personalities of both come through clearly.  Both monsters have deep origins in folklore and people have believed in them since ancient times.  Just because they’re not human, however, is no reason to suppose they’ll get along with each other.  As soon as Universal discovered that monsters translated well to film the idea began to develop that monster versus monster would be a great spectacle.  We had vampires and werewolves clashing on cheap budgets with fog machines.  A new orthodoxy was created that the undead just don’t get along.  It’s a idea that continued into the relatively bloodless Dark Shadows series, and on into the violent and gleefully bespattered Hellsing.  And since it’s October nobody should be surprised.

October Devotee

Here it is October and I have hardly written about monsters.  Apart from the US government, that is.  I suspect that I could use a little escapism right about now, and most of the boxes are unpacked from the move.  Perhaps it’s time to watch a little horror and feel better about the world.  Monsters, you see, crop up in the most unexpected places.  Yes, in October we expect them to be crouching in dark corners and in dismal swamps as the light begins to fail.  Yet the trees are still mostly green around here and I think I might be in need of some new material.  As with most people my age, I get lost on the internet—someone needs to offer a roadmap to it.  Preferably on paper. 

I admit being stuck in the past.  As any music therapist will tell you, a person’s musical tastes often reflect the sounds of their youth, and some of us believe that rock hit its high point in the 1980s.  My work doesn’t lend itself to background music, so I seldom listen to the radio, and I wouldn’t even know what station to try to hear contemporary offerings.  Fortunately I know some people half my age who find their tunes on the internet, and I was recently introduced to Panic! At the Disco via YouTube.  I’m old enough to remember when music videos first appeared, although I never saw them.  We lived in a small town and, besides, we couldn’t afford cable.  Kids at school, however, talked about MTV and other places—there was no world-wide web then, kids!—that they had seen the latest, coolest video that I could only imagine.  When my contemporary young friends showed me “LA Devotee” by Panic! I was stunned.

If you haven’t seen it, just look up the official video on YouTube.  You’ve got the whole internet at your fingertips!  While the lyrics seem innocent enough—young person wants to make it big and so imitates the Los Angeles lifestyle—the video is horror show.  Literally.  Borrowing from M. Night Shyamalan the opening sequence is a cross between The Village and Signs.  Then it becomes a torture chamber for a young boy (from Stranger Things, no less, a show I binge-watched when it came out on DVD).  And Satanism.  Yes, taking on the LA lifestyle is compared to selling your soul to the Devil.  The stunning visuals kept me clicking the replay button.  Even as I felt my age, I also felt October growing.  And I was glad to see the monsters are still there.  Too bad we can’t banish them from DC, however.

Twice Bitten

I should be aware of what happens next. I’ve seen it in movies often enough. Man gets bitten by a wolf, and he turns into a werewolf at the full moon. That gives me two days. And it wasn’t a wolf, but a pit bull. I fear what I might become. You have to understand that after a long commute—they’re doing construction along a stretch of a major artery where my route passes—and having been awake since 3:30 (a.m.) when I get off the bus I’m not always thinking clearly. I’ve done some calculating and it turns out that apart from work, commute, and sleep (or at least trying to sleep) I’m left with three and a half hours per day to do my own stuff, like write these blog posts, eat breakfast and supper, and pay bills. So when I get off the bus for my short walk home, my main concern is getting across a busy street where New Jersey drivers routinely ignore the state law that they must stop for pedestrians in a cross walk. But last night the dogs were out.

The sidewalks in my town are narrow. Nine days out of ten I meet no one on my way home. There’s one guy with a tiny dog that’s feisty and it is amusing how the little guy—just a puppy—growls and barks its tiny barks and strains to get at me. Dog owners around here pull their dogs off the sidewalk to let walkers pass. It’s a friendly town that way. Last night the young woman was no match for the two pit bulls she was walking. The street was unusually busy since two guys had just walked past me, one, commenting on the dogs, said “I don’t take my beasts out any more.” The woman pulled the dogs off the walk and they barked and snapped and as I walked past one lunged and bit me. Tore a good pair of pants. The woman they owned was aghast and offered to pay. I didn’t want her to know how cheap my clothes were. Besides, I couldn’t hear her over all the barking.

It’s been years since I’ve been bitten by a dog. This was really just a scratch and the frantic woman assured me the dogs had had their shots. But I’ve seen the movies. I know what happens next. Two nights from now I’ll be roaming the streets after dark, half human, half dog. The Hunter Moon (the official name for October’s full moon) comes on Sunday. I can’t blame the dog—it was only doing what aggressive dogs are bred to do. My commute, however, has a new hazard. Not only do we deal with construction zones, I now have to arouse myself to watch out for werewolves on the way home. It must be October.

Me, in two days.

Me, in two days.

The Wars of the Worlds

Just as it is appropriate for news sources to carry religious stories without ridicule in weekend editions, October is the month when strange things might be reported with a degree of seriousness. I have often noted in the past that “paranormal” (think X-Files) phenomena are closely related to religion. Since our ruling paradigm is one of belittling the intellects of those willing to consider evidence beyond the accepted, news stories featuring the unexplained do so with a generous helping of scorn. I was amazed, then, when my wife sent me a story on the BBC News Magazine from the World Service Sport section. (Which is near enough to paranormal, as sports fail to interest me in the least bit.) A story by Richard Padula is entitled “The day UFOs stopped play.” Near this date in 1954 in Florence, Italy, a soccer game stopped as UFOs appeared above the stadium. Former World Cup players stared upward instead of at the ball. The event was documented and never explained. I kept waiting for the jowl-waggling punchline. It never came. Here was a news story from a reputable source taking something strange at face value.

Paranormal activities and religious experiences are in the same category when it comes to a materialistic universe. They can’t exist and so the superior mind must laugh them off, stating they are an illusion, hallucination, or hoax. They still happen, nonetheless. Some world governments are beginning to announce to their citizens that they recognize unexplained arial phenomena exist and—truly astounding for government rulers—they have no explanation. Something weird is going on. It was on Halloween Eve in 1938 that Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, was invaded, according to an Orson Welles radio play. Since the inexplicable panic that came following that broadcast, extraterrestrial visitors have been laughed off the serious news page into the comic section. News stories have never taken it seriously since.

DSCN4237

A sports writer, casting about for an interesting story, might well focus on an event of such Fortean dimensions. Some highly respected people present at that game were interviewed with utter seriousness and traces of physical evidence were even gathered. A substance whimsically called “angel hair” was found all over the city, and despite the chemical signature, was declared to be the webs of a massive spider invasion (who needs aliens to be scared?) by many scientists who didn’t witness it. Laugh and the world laughs with you. The BBC doesn’t seem to be laughing in this story. Tomorrow is Halloween, when many improbable things seem possible, if only for a short time. Weather balloons, swamp gas, and Venus notwithstanding, sometimes people of normal intellect turn their eyes to the sky and wonder.

Zombie Jesus

It must still be October. Despite a snowstorm before Halloween (one of nature’s trick-or-treats), all the signs are still there. My daughter showed me a Venn diagram yesterday, during a whole-day marathon of putting plastic around our drafty old windows, showing the intersection of three “monster” traits: resurrected from the dead, local townspeople fear and revere him, and convert as many mindless followers as possible. The creatures that inhabit this eerie universe are Dracula, Frankenstein, Zombie, and, where all three intersect, Jesus Christ. Obviously this was just for a laugh, but interestingly, one of the traits of Penn Jillette’s book, God, No!, is his rather frequent reference to Jesus as a zombie. Then I clicked over to Religion Dispatches, and the lead story is headlined, “Praying to the Zombie Jesus.” Ours is a world of mindless, quick connections where the compelling idea of resurrection has lost its appeal. Despite our religious culture—or perhaps because of it—we have come to see Christianity as just one more peddler of a wonderful, disturbing idea.

As regular readers of this blog know, I find the abuse of religious ideals inexcusable. Using one’s faith to beat another down is just plain wrong. Nevertheless, to focus on the folkloristic aspect of resurrection (or perhaps it is a metaphor) is to miss what drew the very earliest followers to Jesus. Before the idea of rising from the dead came a message that people should love each other and treat one another with respect and dignity. By the end of the first century of the common era, or perhaps as early as Paul, that idea grew to be a quasi-magical resurrection from the dead. No longer were women counted as equals among the followers of Jesus, and no longer were wealthy compelled to give it all up. Paul’s faith looked to a future world, beyond death, and was willing to consider this world, well, to be polite, crap. The reasons for this transformation are legion: the persecution that Christianity was undergoing, the failure of an apocalypse to take place, the disenfranchisement of the believers. They needed something to look forward to.

Zombies are likely a passing fad. When we start seeing books of zombie Christmas carols, zombie haikus, and zombie apocalypse survivors’ guides, we seem to be reaching the peak of the plateau. The zombie is mindless, rapacious, and entirely selfish. It will not go away. It is the perfect denizen of October. When I stare into those uncomprehending eyes, and see the disturbing lack of compassion and the desire to consume human brains, I start to make connections of my own. Analysts often describe zombies as the ghoul of the common folk. But all these characteristics taken together suggest that perhaps the month in which to expect zombies is November. Surviving another snowpocalypse, earthquake, and hurricane, the human spirit is difficult to dominate. And yet, when the polls open up in the darker season of the year, zombies will rise. The plastic on my windows does nothing to stop these chills.

Borrowed from a friend's site

Buying Salvation

October is upon us. The telltale signs are all there: trees just starting to turn, gray skies that hide an intangible menace, a coolness in the air, and Halloween stores sprouting like mushrooms. Halloween is a holiday with incredible sales appeal, I suspect, because people are still, at some level, very afraid. We evolved into who we are from a long history of being prey as well as predators. Fear governs many of our interactions in social settings, although we prefer to call it more abstract names such as “rule of law” or “peer pressure.” Deep down, we are afraid. Halloween allows us to wear that fear on our sleeves. And it isn’t just the Celts who made this confession; Día de los Muertos developed independently, giving us a different flavor of the same emotion. Savvy marketers know that where a human concern lies, there will be the purse-strings also.

Commercialization of religion—the fancy word is “commodification”—is as close to American religious experience as you can get. We live in a religious marketplace. Various religious groups offer their wares, sometimes obviously, sometimes subtly. Often the underlying motivation is fear—fear of displeasing deity, fear of eternal torment, fear of reincarnation. We are afraid and we don’t know what to do, so we try to buy our way out of it. Other times the Madison Avenue approach works. Consider the Crystal Cathedral, or even the great medieval cathedrals of Europe. These are tourist destinations, architectural marvels that draw us in. The message is still pretty much the same: the deity will get you unless you give back. How better to show respect (that is fear) than erecting a massive, complex, and very expensive edifice to the angry God?

It is simplistic to suggest that religion boils down to fear, but when all the water evaporates, fear is certainly evident among the residue. Next to the overtly commercial holiday of Christmas the most money can be coaxed out of Americans at Halloween. Or consider the appeal of horror movies. Love them or hate them, they will draw in big money at the box office. In a society that sublimates fear and tells its citizens that unimpeded growth is attainable, Halloween is the most parsimonious holiday. Perhaps the most honest, too. A full month before the creepy sight of naked trees and chill breezes that sound like screams whistling through their bare branches, the stores begin to appear. When Halloween is over they will be dormant for eleven months of the year, but like the undead they are never really gone. Only sleeping.

A parable.